Local schools: No child should ever go hungry
By Anna Jauhola
Local school districts are closely watching Minnesota House File 5 and anticipate providing free meals for their students next year.
Kittson Central and Lancaster school districts participate in national school lunch through the Community Eligibility Provision program (CEP) through USDA. Should House File 5 and its companion, Senate File 123, pass into law, both schools plan to automatically provide free meals to all students. Legislators are calling it the universal meals program.
“The biggest thing is you don’t want any kid to be hungry,” said Bob Jaszczak, superintendent of Kittson Central School in Hallock. “We have never denied a kid a meal ever because of lunch balances, this, that or the next thing.”
He said the biggest population affected by school lunch costs is those on the cusp of making too much to qualify for free or reduced meals, but only enough to cover household expenses. Jaszczak said this bill will help close that gap and simply provide meals for every child, regardless of their situation.
House File 5, introduced by Rep. Sydney Jordan, DFL-Minneapolis, requires schools to participate in CEP, which will cover the majority of meal costs. Whatever costs are left to operate a food service program, the state would pick up that bill.
Hungry students have a more difficult time paying attention and focusing in class. Knowing their meal account is negative only further impacts their well-being with worry for the family budget or possibly being bullied for the inability to afford lunch. Jaszczak and Lancaster Superinten-dent Nicole Thompson agree no child should ever go hungry, and that well-fed students do better academically and worry less.
Districts across the state have many negative student meal accounts. Fortunately, both Lancaster and Kittson Central communities have generous donors each year who ask to help pay off those debts. Jaszczak said money received like that is spread equally across any delinquent accounts. Lancaster has a specific “Angel Fund” set up for donations like that.
Both schools, according to state law, have anti-bullying policies in place, including anti-shaming policies directly tied to school meals and balances.
At Kittson Central, 33 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced meals. At Lancaster, 52 percent of the students qualified this year, which is a huge jump for that district.
“We were really shooting for 50 percent,” Thompson said. “This helps with compensatory aid. Alana (Scalese, food service director) and the parents have stepped up this year and filled those (applications) out.”
Jaszczak said students may receive free and reduced meals for several reasons, such as if they receive any kind of benefits or qualify for any kind of subsidy on their health insurance.
“That’s why many communities have seen a pretty significant increase in their free and reduced lunch population,” he said.
Both districts highly credit staff – Scalese at Lancaster and Judy Shuck at Kittson Central – for their efforts in assisting parents in filling out the free and reduced forms. At Lancaster, the district waived its technology fee if parents filled out the form. At Kittson Central, Shuck works closely with parents to make filling out the form easy as possible. Districts with free and reduced student populations access different revenue streams. Jaszczak said he doesn’t know how this bill, if passed into law, will affect that additional funding.
Kittson Central serves approximately 30,000 lunches each year and this year has a student population of 230. This year’s food service budget is $186,552.
Lancaster serves a little over 29,000 lunches each year with a student population for 178 this year. This year’s food service budget is $201,000.
Food service budgets cover not only groceries, but food service staff salaries and miscellaneous costs. Jaszczak said the current federal reimbursement rate for a high school meal, for example, is $3.68. High school students currently pay $3.50 per meal. So federal reimbursements will likely not cover everything.
“When all is said and done, more often than not, our food service program does not always have cash flow,” Jaszczak said. “Most of the time, we end up with a little bit of a deficit.”
Oftentimes, school districts will have to supplement their food service funds with money from the general fund at the end of a fiscal year. Kittson Central did this at the end of 2021-22, and Lancaster used reserve funds to balance that account.
“In the next few years, we may have to adjust the budget we have for food service, if it continues on the path it’s on without this bill being passed,” Thompson said.
Jaszczak is hopeful a universal meals program will encourage more school lunch participation as there would be no cost associated with it. There will always be students who are picky and bring their own lunch, but for the most part, each superintendent said they have amazing kitchen staff who prepare nutritious, appetizing meals.